Is Social Media Really For Humans?

Note to the reader: This was written in December 2017.

Group hug

I love to share. I’m often caught frantically and slightly apologetically scrolling through my phone when with a friend, to try and show them a prized memory or relevant content.

I love to talk. I talk on my phone more than any housemate I’ve lived with over the past 8 years (and there have been a few).

And I love technology. As a software engineer, I’m barely separated from my computer.

But I don’t love social media. Since approximately my first year of university, I’ve found it deeply uncomfortable.

I think the uncomfortableness spawned when I saw my school friends reinvent themselves as university freshers, because it seemed that everyone was projecting, and no-one was real any more.

Reinventing oneself is not necessarily a bad thing, but it did open my eyes to the idea that there might be a darker side to social media.

An early uncomfortable moment of mine was after I’d seen a post by a friend on social media, and asked them something face to face about it. They challenged me on my right to ask the question.

Why was I being challenged, when they’d shared it with me?

When they’re left feeling uncomfortable, and I’m left feeling confused, who was the real culprit?

Perhaps neither party is — perhaps it’s intrinsic to how social networks are designed.

When you think about it, the idea of sharing to a feed (for example, Facebook’s timeline, or Snapchat’s story) is impersonal. It’s impersonal because you are not actually taking the time to share this information with anyone in a real sense. It’s not a genuine interaction.

And not only that — you are not sensitive to how your audience is feeling. There are plenty of real life examples where anyone with common sense would censor themselves, but on social media, you cannot.

For example, sharing

  • baby photos, with someone who recently had a miscarriage
  • your new relationship with your ex
  • alcohol with an alcoholic
  • events you’re attending with close friends who were not invited
  • happy scenes with a person in a destructive mood
  • inappropriate pictures with your colleagues

I’m sure there are plenty more examples.

You can call me sensitive all you want, but I dislike even taking the chance that I’ll upset someone with something I’ve shared.

In a real life interaction, avoiding this risk is a lot easier. For example, if I’d bought some amazing wine, I might steer away sharing it with a friend if they were confessing alcoholism to me.

But there are limited options to do this on social media. Your post can be up there in unforgiving cyberspace forever and for everyone. And really you have no idea how it’ll make others feel.

A counterargument might be that people are flawed, that it’s human nature to share the wrong things at the wrong times, and to accidentally cause unintended emotional responses in others.

From there it follows that social media is nothing more than an interface for this to happen online. But by removing the tailored nature of natural person to person interaction, it makes the sort of accidents I described above orders of magnitude more likely.

To give some credit to social media platforms, the privacy options have been beefed up recently, allowing us to better manage our audiences. However for me this feels almost like a sticking plaster over their fundamental design.

Personally, I have almost entirely turned my back on social media, and instead believe that if you want to share something with someone close to you, share it in a way tailored for them. Perhaps arrange to meet them. Or call them. Or text. Or send a letter.

You might even have to tell the same story more than once. But that story will be told better every time. You’ll practice real interactional social skills.

Conversely, as a serial social media sharer, you’re at risk of replacing interactional skills with self promotional skills.

I worry that this awareness is not common, and if it is not there, folks may be unwittingly gamifying their own lives.

Group hug

Hark the words of DJ Khaled — otherwise you could be left wondering where your friends went.